Multan 1978: police opened fire on the unarmed workers. According to official reports, 14 workers were killed. Mussawat reported 22 deaths. However, the Workers Action Committee estimated that 133 workers were killed and over 400 were injured
On 9/11 this year, while a factory fire in Karachi claimed 300 lives, another 27 workers were burnt to death in Lahore in a similar incident. The trade union leadership and activists have termed it the 9/11 of the Pakistani workers. And rightly so. The only difference with the US’ 9/11 is the state backing for terrorism in the case of the Karachi and Lahore infernos.
While 9/11 in New York was perpetrated by a secretive bunch of fanatics, the twin tragedies on 9/11 in Karachi and Lahore were jointly executed by provincial governments, factory bosses and labour departments.[Needs some explanation]
However, this is not the first time Pakistani workers have met their 9/11s:
9/11 in Lahore [Jan 2012]: Twenty-eight workers were killed, mostly women, when a three-storey factory building owned by a pharmaceutical company caved in after a huge blast in Kharak, Lahore. The huge blast was apparently caused either by the boiler or by gas cylinders in the boiler section of the factory. The building collapsed trapping over 50 workers, most of them young women and child labor. The factory was located in a residential area and the blast also destroyed an adjacent house and partially damaged another.
The gutted factory, Orient Labs (Pvt) Ltd. dealing in veterinary injections, had been sealed by government agencies at least twice in the past. It was illegally operating in the area and residents had filed a case in a civil court seeking closure of the factory because it was in the residential area. There are hundreds of such small factories operating in residential areas and violating all the labour laws. The workers at this factory were paid Rupees 3000, to 5000. They were working over 12 hours and no facility of proper toilet was available at the factory. [After this tragedy, a ban on the labour inspections was lifted].
9/11 in Multan : On January 2, 1978 police gunned down unarmed workers at the Colony Textile Mills. The Colony Textile Mills carnage remains the most horrible event in the country’s trade union history. It was General Zia’s puritan message to Pakistani workers who had embraced infidel socialist ideals. After the military coup in July 1977, traders and industrialists were expecting a reversal of Bhutto-era nationalization. They had ardently supported the anti-Bhutto campaign. General Zia was equally keen to return the favour in kind by returning factories to their previous owners who immediately reduced workers’ wages and benefits or fired them outright.
The 13, 000 workers at Multan’s Colony Textile Mills felt threatened by the official encouragement of the bosses. Since the toppling of the Bhutto government they had not received their bonus even though the mills’ production and profits were growing. Incidentally, Mughees A. Sheikh, the mill owner, had a cordial relationship with General Zia, a relationship cultivated when the latter was Corps Commander in Multan. It was perhaps because of this cordial relationship with the country’s anti-worker dictator that the millowner ignored the workers’ demands with poise.
The workers were demands were arrogantly disregarded. They went on strike on December 29, 1977. The management invited the union leadership for the negotiations. The People’s Labour Union having won the referendum, enjoyed CBA-status. On January 2, 1978 talks were held between the union representatives, Labour Department officials, martial law authorities, and the local administration. The mills’ administration and the union had almost reached an agreement on the question of bonus but the payment of wages for the strike days remained disputed. The management was adamant that the strike was illegal and workers would not be paid for the time lost in the strike.
While negotiations were still in process, agitated workers began to gather on the mill’s premises for an informational meeting in the vicinity of the millowner’s residence. The police were already present and ordered the workers to immediately disperse. The workers refused to budge. The police resorted to a baton charge but the workers resisted instead of escaping the scene.
As most of the workers were residing in the workers’ colony on the premises, their families joined the police confrontation too. Then the police opened fire on the unarmed workers. According to official and newspaper reports, 14 workers were killed. The PPP-organ daily Mussawat reported 22 deaths. However, the Workers Action Committee that had emerged during this struggle estimated that 133 workers were killed and over 400 were injured.
The military authorities instituted an inquiry headed by a brigadier. A police S.H.O, Raja Khizer Hayat, and a police constable, Hakim Ali, were suspended and tried in a military court. The massacre sparked a country-wide protest as unions observed Black Day on the 9th and 10th January, 1978.
9/11 in Karachi : On February 10, 1972 Bhutto announced his labour policy includingstern warnings against gherao and jelao [siege and arson]. ‘The strength of the street will be met by the strength of the state,’ he roared. However, Karachi’s industrial workers, elated indeed when Bhutto came to power, dismissed his warnings as opportunist gimmickry. Many had joined the PPP, and faced jail and oppression for the democratic struggle led by Bhutto himself. Bhutto promised to reinstate the factory workers made redundant in the past several years by the mill owners. He had vowed to confiscate the passports of the industrialists who had deposited assets in off-shore banks. He wanted them to bring the looted money back to the country. Even the state media when Bhutto came to powerbegan to sound radical.
Hence, workers, who had only recently humbled the country’s first military dictator, were resorting to militant actions to win their due rights. From January to June 1972, industrial workers at Karachi’s industrial districts were indeed in rebellious mood. Simultaneously, workers’ solidarity was at its best. When Zebtun Textile Mills was closed down and 2000 workers were rendered jobless, 200,000 industrial workers in Karachi went on strike across SITE [the site? The city?] on March 28, 1972. The Bhutto government began to see a ‘foreign hand’ behind working class militancy. The state-controlled media also unleashed anti-trade union propaganda. Momentum was being built for a face-off.
A pretext for state brutality was provided by the bosses at the Feroz Sultan Textile Mills. On June 7, 1972 as the workers gathered to receive their wages, they were informed that their back pay, over due for a month, would not be paid. Also, the management had refused the workers other rights. The workers went on an instantaneous gherao. They were joined by their comrades from the surrounding factories. A 5000-strong gherao was in progress when police arrived and opened fire. Three workers embraced martyrdom. Next day, as their charged funeral processions were heading for cemetery, police fired at the workers and their families yet again leaving ten dead. It was Haymarket all over again!
9/11 in Faisalabad : On June 20, 1958 police shot dead six workers in Faisalabad and shot and injured another 21. The workers had occupied a factory for the release of an arrested union leader. In mid-2010, power loom workers in Faisalabad went on a series of major strikes and demonstrations. The state instead of siding with workers, arrested six union leaders. Once in detention, they were additionally charged under anti-terrorist legislation. The six have now been sentenced to a total of 490 years' jail.
Police shooting and fires: the workers in Pakistan have suffered multiple 9/11s.
Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.